Facing an uphill battle with a shorthanded roster in a raucous road environment, the Valparaiso University men’s basketball team gave fans numerous reasons for optimism heading into the Missouri Valley Conference slate during Saturday’s nonconference finale.
Valpo overcame an early 18-5 deficit to take an eight-point edge with under eight minutes remaining, but ran out of steam a smidge too soon in a 72-68 loss to SEC foe Arkansas at Simmons Bank Arena in North Little Rock. The Razorbacks entered the evening ranked 12th in RPI, 23rd in the NET rankings and receiving votes nationally in the AP and USA Today Coaches’ polls.
How It Happened
- Even the most ardent Valpo supporters had doubt about whether the game would be competitive creep into their minds when their team faced an 18-5 deficit with 12:32 remaining in the first half. The Razorbacks (10-1) created several runouts and set the tempo in the early going.
- Before the game could lose its competitiveness in the first half, Valpo assembled an 11-1 spurt that cut the deficit to three at 19-16 with 7:50 to go in the period. The Brown & Gold got contributions from a variety of sources during that stretch, which proved to be a sign of things to come. Eron Gordon (Indianapolis, Ind. / Cathedral [Seton Hall]) drained a triple to start the spurt, which also featured two quick baskets by Zion Morgan (Chicago, Ill. / Kenwood [Wabash Valley/UNLV]) and was capped on a layup by Ben Krikke (Edmonton, Alberta, Canada / Jasper).
- Valpo got the lead down to two when Javon Freeman-Liberty (Chicago, Ill. / Whitney Young) set up John Kiser (Noblesville, Ind. / Noblesville) for a fast-break layup with 4:21 left in the first half to make it 26-24.
- The Razorbacks keyed in on Freeman-Liberty for much of the half, but it didn’t stop him from hitting the biggest shot of the game to that point with 1:58 to go before halftime. He swished a 3-point heave to give Valpo its first lead of the game at 31-29. That came after an important blocked shot by Morgan on the other end.
- Freeman-Liberty snapped a 32-all tie with 16 seconds left in the half with a fast-break dunk, putting Valpo back in front going into the break. It marked just the second time all season Arkansas trailed at the half, with the first being their lone defeat, a game at Western Kentucky.
- The two teams went back-and-fourth for the first eight minutes of the second half. Freeman-Liberty nailed a go-ahead trey to break a 46-apiece deadlock with 11:34 to go, then Mileek McMillan laid one in to up the edge to five. A few minutes later, Valpo got monster 3s from Donovan Clay and Freeman-Liberty to open up its largest lead of the game at 59-51 with 7:27 to go.
- Arkansas rattled off seven straight points and had the margin down to one in the blink of an eye. Valpo led 65-62 with a little as 1:30 remaining, but Mason Jones hit back-to-back 3s to spark an 8-0 run. Valpo wouldn’t score again until Gordon’s 3-pointer with 26 seconds left cut the lead to two, but the Brown & Gold would get no closer in the dramatic battle.
- Foul trouble plagued Valpo in the second half, as McMillan fouled out with 5:12 remaining and his team up three. Gordon, Clay and Freeman-Liberty also finished with four fouls, with Gordon and Clay flirting with foul issues for much of the half.
Inside the Game
- Freeman-Liberty led Valpo in scoring for the 10th straight game against Division-I competition. He filled the stat sheet with 21 points, seven rebounds, six assists and four steals. The sophomore star equaled his career best in assists, which was set on Dec. 8 vs. Central Michigan.
- McMillan came a carom shy of a double-double with 14 points and nine boards. He obliterated his previous season high of four rebounds and upped his career best of seven that was set on Nov. 10, 2017 vs. North Park. He came two points shy of matching his scoring high, established on Nov. 17, 2019 vs. North Dakota despite being limited to 24 minutes due to foul trouble and his subsequent disqualification.
- Morgan followed McMillan’s lead by also doubling his rebounding season high. He needed only 13 minutes to rack up nine boards, besting his previous high of four. His best game in a Valpo uniform also featured four points.
- Kiser contributed eight points and five rebounds, while Gordon hit double figures with 10 points and canned a pair of 3s. Krikke added six points to Valpo’s balanced offensive effort.
- The Hogs are 9-0 in home games this season, and Saturday marked their slimmest margin of victory in those nine contests.
- Valpo nearly swung the upset with just eight scholarship players, as four others were sidelined by injuries or illness.
Valpo (7-6) will take a few days off for the Christmas holiday before returning to Porter County to begin preparation for the Missouri Valley Conference gauntlet that begins on Monday, Dec. 30. Loyola will come to the Athletics-Recreation Center for a 7 p.m. tip, a game that will air on The Valley on ESPN+. Links to live video, audio and stats will be available on ValpoAthletics.com.